Part of our collection of articles on Australian history’s missing women, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography
Roma Gilchrist was a key figure in the left-wing women’s movement in Western Australia before, during and after the second world war. Energetic, committed and confident, she became president of the Western Australian branch of the Union of Australian Women in 1957, a position she held for fourteen years.
She was born Roma Catherine Tuffin in England on 1 September 1909. Her family emigrated to Perth when she was a small child, and her parents used their limited funds to buy a farm in the southwest of Western Australia. Many years later Roma would write movingly about the hardships the family faced, living in tents and a bark shelter, and the terrors that confronted her mother in a landscape about which she knew absolutely nothing. According to Roma, her mother was convinced that lions and tigers were prowling around their tent. After six years, having failed to make a living from the farm, they moved back to Perth, where her father worked on the trams.
In 1931, Roma married photographer John Gilchrist, the son of a miner and a politically committed mother. Roma did most of the child-rearing and housework as they raised their four daughters and one son, although she employed a woman once a week to clean the house. For many years she also helped support the family by taking in boarders, and she learnt dressmaking so that she could work as a seamstress.
Roma’s parents were Christian and conservative. It was John’s mother who introduced her to the radical politics she would follow for the rest of her life. Sometime in the 1930s, she and John became members of the Perth branch of the Communist Party of Australia. John would leave the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (Roma’s date of resignation isn’t known) and later became president of the Labor Party’s Maddington branch. Looking back in 1980, during a conference about communists in the labour movement, Roma criticised communist men for expecting women to work for the party as well as look after their own families.
Both were deeply committed to socialism and peace; Roma also grew into feminism. In 1937, after the Labor Party banned its members from joining the Movement against War and Fascism because of its links to the Communist Party, Katharine Susannah Prichard and some friends formed the Modern Women’s Club. Roma Gilchrist joined and became very active. The club’s premises in Perth’s CBD also hosted other activities: a women’s theatre group met there for some years, as did the New Theatre between 1948 and 1954; and in 1946 Don McLeod used the rooms to launch an appeal to support striking Aboriginal pastoral workers.
By 1950 the club had been outflanked by the younger and more activist New Housewives’ Association. Accepting the inevitable, the old members — “grey heads,” as Gilchrist called them — wound up the club. Most joined the New Housewives’ Association, which subsequently, in an attempt to broaden its appeal, changed its name to the Union of Australian Women, or UAW.
Gilchrist joined almost immediately, becoming vice-president in 1954 and president between 1957 and 1971. She “fell” into the presidency, she said, because no one else wanted to do it, and then she kept it because she was so highly regarded for her organising capacity, boundless energy and likeability. Her presidency was marked by a spirit of consensus, which was attractive to members, and an absence of sectarianism, which made relations with Perth’s other women’s groups easy.
The UAW provided a monthly forum where speakers from Perth, interstate and overseas found an eager audience. Members supported the families of striking workers, and campaigned for peace, Aboriginal rights (many Aboriginal women were members), childcare, kindergartens and improved conditions in maternity hospitals. They could be counted on to lobby the government on matters likely to benefit working-class women and their families. In its heyday the club was staffed every weekday, and Gilchrist attended virtually every day.
Gilchrist continued to work for peace. In 1957 she organised a novel protest in which women wearing aprons and scarves printed with peace slogans walked through the streets of Perth. They were arrested, charged with displaying unseemly propaganda, and subsequently convicted. Gilchrist wasn’t arrested — she arrived at the meeting point late — and she continued the protest alone: she was never wanting in courage.
In later years she organised peace marches from Fremantle to Perth. Like the Modern Women’s Club before it, though, the UAW was challenged and overtaken — in this case by the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, which was somewhat intolerant of older feminists. As Gilchrist’s friend, Madge Cope, wrote of the UAW, “we took women as they were, responsible for the family, and appealed to them that way.” As the UAW’s membership fell away, high rents made it difficult to maintain its premises. The group disbanded in 1973.
Roma Gilchrist also travelled a great deal. In 1955, she represented the Peace Council of Western Australia at the Assembly for Peace in Helsinki, and she was invited to the Mothers’ Conference in Lausanne, where she contacted women from behind the Iron Curtain. She also travelled to Czechoslovakia, where her son had won a scholarship to dance with the national Czech ballet company. She visited Japan for Expo 70 and met members of the Japanese women’s movement. Back home, the Gilchrists hosted well-known visitors like feminist activist Jessie Street, who was visiting to inspect living conditions for Aborigines. In 1970 Gilchrist was appointed a justice of the peace.
Gilchrist was an enthusiastic writer of short stories, always with female protagonists, perhaps in the hope that they would be printed in competitions run by the UAW’s magazine, Our Women. In 1981, in poor health and living on a pension with her husband, she was awarded $200 by the Women and Labour Conference Trust Fund to assist her in writing the history of the UAW in Western Australia. It’s fair to say she was a better historian than short-story writer: her history of the UAW is nicely written, well organised and informative.
Roma Gilchrist died on 29 October 1983. She was survived for less than two months by her husband, who also died from cancer. Up to their deaths they remained working-class activists, learning from each other and from people they met, as they strove for what they hoped would be a more just and peaceful future for all. •